MLB franchise shortstop draft: Witt, Henderson or Seager No. 1?

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

The shortstop position is absolutely loaded in Major League Baseball.

One of the biggest debates ahead of the 2024 MLB All-Star Game is who should be the starting shortstop for the American League: reigning Rookie of the Year Gunnar Henderson or budding superstar Bobby Witt Jr.?

Well, the first fan voting numbers are in, and they are No. 1 and 2, respectively, as they battle for their first Midsummer Classic nod. But if you look at some of the other names getting votes in both leagues, you'll notice it goes well beyond those two. Another under-25 shortstop rounds out the top 3 vote-getters in the AL -- Anthony Volpe -- and he's followed by two-time World Series MVP Corey Seager. In the National League, Mookie Betts already has more than a million votes (but will miss the game after breaking his hand), and he's followed by two superstars in Trea Turner and Elly De La Cruz. And that's without even getting into the top prospect in the minors right now: the Baltimore Orioles' Jackson Holliday, another shortstop.

Which raises the question: If you could build a team around a cornerstone shortstop right now, who would you take? We challenged our baseball experts to participate in an MLB shortstop draft. Below are their picks for the player they'd most want over the next five years -- and why they chose them.

No. 1 pick: Bobby Witt Jr., Kansas City Royals

Selected by:Buster Olney

Why he's the shortstop to build around: Your ideal shortstop would check every box -- someone who excels at defense, someone who gets on base at a high level, someone who hits for power, someone who runs well, someone with the kind of athleticism that will allow him to age well and not become too big for the position. This is Bobby Witt Jr., who has excellent defensive metrics, who is on track to rack up more than 200 hits and 130 runs, more than 80 extra-base hits and close to 50 stolen bases. He plays with an ease that you often see in sons of former MLB players; his comfort zone is anywhere on a baseball field, in the most pivotal moments.

One stat that proves it: Witt's 11 Outs Above Average are the most of any shortstop this season. In fact, that's tied for the most OAA for any player at any position. (Marcus Semien also has 11). The next closest shortstops have eight.

No. 2 pick: Gunnar Henderson, Baltimore Orioles

Selected by:Xavier Scruggs

Why he's the shortstop to build around: Henderson is surpassing expectations as a World Series-contending franchise shortstop, and I would've taken him even if I had the No. 1 draft choice for that reason. The 22-year-old has dismissed any signs of slowing down after his American League Rookie of the Year campaign and has already shown to be the most productive shortstop in the game right now, according to Wins Above Replacement (bWAR 4.9).

Just pick any tool you need from a generational shortstop: speed, contact, power, arm strength, defense. He possesses all of them. What ultimately separates Henderson from his peers is the immediate impact at the top of the order felt by opposing teams. He won AL ROY last year, and currently he's second toAaron Judge in AL MVP odds. Maybe the Cal Ripken Jr. comparisons aren't far off after all.

One stat that proves it: Gunnar Henderson is on pace for 50 homers. There have been only five occasions when a shortstop has hit 45 or more homers with Alex Rodriguez the last to do so (2003 Rangers, 47HR).

No. 3 pick: Corey Seager, Texas Rangers

Selected by:Jorge Castillo

Why he's the shortstop to build around: My decision here came down to Seager and Betts. I went with Seager because I believe he'll remain at shortstop significantly longer. There aren't five better hitters in the world than Seager when he's healthy. And that's the caveat: When he's healthy. Just last season, he finished second in the AL MVP vote despite playing in only 119 games. Then he went on a postseason rampage for the second time in four years.

He isn't the most glamorous defender, but he handles routine plays and could stay at shortstop through his age-35 season. Even if he moves to another position -- first or third base is most likely -- his bat would more than hold up. That short, sweet swing should age just fine -- as long as he stays on the field to inflict damage.

One stat that proves it: Four players have won multiple World Series MVP Awards: Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Reggie Jackson ... and Seager. Jackson and Seager are the only ones to do it on different teams. The goal is to hoist the World Series trophy, and Seager has been the engine for two championship clubs in October. He is one of his generation's greatest postseason performers.

No. 4 pick: Elly De La Cruz, Cincinnati Reds

Selected by:Kiley McDaniel

Why he's the shortstop to build around: De La Cruz is in the small group in the conversation for most dynamic and rare athlete in our lifetime -- in any sport. Just ask Snoop Dogg. He is still just 22 years old, has played 169 career big league games, and he's in the top 15 players in the league in WAR this season. The concern coming into the big leagues is the poor pitch selection he showed in the minors. That would be the thing that would make up for the lack of average he'll hit for due to being 6-foot-5 (i.e. having long arms) and leaning into power in his approach. Let's use the most basic measure of pitch selection: De La Cruz had a 5% walk rate in the minors in 2021, then 7.5% in 2022, then 10% between Triple-A and the big leagues in 2023, and now nearly 12% this season -- all while being young for every level.

It's not just raw tools leading to his success, it's also an incredible feel for the game, but don't get it twisted: His tools are historic. There's an argument that De La Cruz is a top-of-the-scale 80 runner (on the 20-80 scouting scale) with 80-grade raw power and an 80-grade arm, which puts him in a group with a handful of players in the history of baseball, or maybe just Bo Jackson. None of the candidates for that group were also plus defenders at shortstop with a plus eye at the plate. Elly De La Cruz is inevitable.

One stat that proves it: 80%. He's at that percentile or higher among all big leaguers, per Baseball Savant, in average exit velo, bat speed, barrel rate, walk rate, range, arm strength, defensive runs saved and sprint speed. Those essentially cover each of the five tools, confirming with numbers -- at age 22! -- what our eyes can also see. Oh, and he's on pace to steal 82 bases this year, too. The upside is clearly there, and it's already showing up on the field, with plenty more improvement to come.

No. 5 pick: Mookie Betts, Los Angeles Dodgers

Selected by:Jeff Passan

Why he's the shortstop to build around: Yes, we did this draft before Betts' left hand was broken by an errant 98-mph fastball. No, I still don't regret the choice. It's difficult to pass up on a first-ballot Hall of Famer when he's there with the fifth pick, even when he's hurt. Betts will play the next four years at ages 32-35, and metrics suggest he's got a long way to go to master defense at the position. But with a bat like Betts', even mediocre defense at the position makes him among the best. He hits for average. He is an on-base machine. He's got bountiful slug. He's a very good baserunner. Perhaps he moves off short -- back to right field, where he won six Gold Gloves, or second base, where he graded out as plus. Versatility is a hallmark in the modern game, and no one embodies it like Betts.

One stat that proves it: A 46-to-33 walk-to-strikeout ratio illustrates the elite nature of Betts' swing decisions and bat control. Even if Betts loses some of his explosiveness as he ages, he already manages to do sufficient damage with below-average bat speed because his elite plate discipline juices the rest of his tools.

No. 6 pick: Trea Turner, Philadelphia Phillies

Selected by:Jesse Rogers

Why he's the shortstop to build around: Despite the power/speed potential of some of the younger shortstops, Trea Turner has already produced many times in that dual role. They may not make a 30-for-30 documentary on his 2023 season, but after such a bad start to his career in Philly, he still managed to go 30-for-30 in stolen bases while hitting 26 home runs last year. And that was considered a downseason for him. Yes, age will be a factor over the next five years -- Turner is 30 now -- but Marcus Semien is a good example of a player performing into his early 30s without issue. There's no reason Turner can't keep producing 20/20 or 30/30 seasons over the next few years -- without the volatility that some of the others on this list provide.

One stat that proves it: Turner has already hit 19 or more home runs and stolen 30 or more bases in every full year since 2019 -- save 2022 when he stole only 27.

No. 7 pick: Jackson Holliday, Baltimore Orioles

Selected by:David Schoenfield

Why he's the shortstop to build around: I debated between Holliday and Anthony Volpe, who may be on his way to a 5-WAR season for the Yankees. Yes, Holliday struggled big time in his 10-game trial, but here's the point to emphasize: At age 20, Volpe was in Class A; at age 20, Holliday has a .433 OBP in Triple-A with 23 extra-base hits in 50 games. At the beginning of the season, Holliday's potential was compared to Witt and Henderson. Don't let 10 games change that narrative. While his future in Baltimore is at second base, for our fictional team he's our franchise shortstop.

One stat that proves it: To further that point, Holliday has an .898 OPS at Triple-A. Witt had a .933 OPS at Triple-A, but was a year older. Henderson posted an .894 OPS at Norfolk, but was also a year older (and had twice as many strikeouts as walks while Holliday has an even ratio). Holliday may still be growing into his power.

No. 8 pick: Anthony Volpe, New York Yankees

Selected by: Doug Glanville

Why he's the shortstop to build around: Volpe has taken huge steps since last season. The hard work he put in during the offseason is the mark of a young shortstop who is committed to getting better. There is no such thing as playing under the radar in New York -- it's a place that can swallow shortstops whole -- and the local kid is more than holding his own. Volpe does it all on a baseball field. He's a Gold Glove defender, an excellent base runner who steals at will, and he has pop. He even successfully adjusted his swing for more contact.

Just 23, he has a long way to go, and he has the time to take these incremental steps to make him an All-Star. Last year, Yankees manager Aaron Boone was often asked whether Volpe needed more seasoning in the minors. Boone always scoffed at that. Volpe has had unquestioned support from the Yankees since Day 1 -- because of his intangibles. Now, though, he's showing us his tangibles. He will be a Yankee for 15 more years.

One stat that proves it:He almost has as many hits to the opposite field now (20) as he did all last season (24), that quick rise shows the kind of improvement needed to become a franchise shortstop.

No. 9 pick: Ezequiel Tovar, Colorado Rockies

Selected by: Alden Gonzalez

Why he's the shortstop to build around: He gets overlooked because of the team he plays for, but Tovar has most of the ingredients one looks for in a building-block shortstop -- a young kid with great makeup who provides plus defense and elite bat-to-ball skills. The only real question surrounding Tovar as he skyrocketed up the Rockies' farm system was whether his power would eventually emerge. And this year, in what is still only his age-22 season, we've seen some of that.

Tovar's slash line has jumped from .253/.287/.408 as a rookie in 2023 to .286/.314/.485 through the first 71 games of his second full season in 2024. In that two-year stretch, he has compiled 16 outs above average on defense -- tied for sixth-most in the majors and more than anybody else on this list. There is, of course, a reason he fell to ninth. There are red flags here, most notably a propensity to swing way too often and lots of batted-ball luck (Tovar currently leads the majors with a .366 batting average on balls in play). His batted-ball metrics aren't great even this year. But this is still a young player rounding into form. Time is very much on Tovar's side.

One stat that proves it: If you think Tovar's offensive resurgence is merely a byproduct of spending half his time in the thin air of Coors Field, think again. Tovar's home-road splits are practically identical this year. His adjusted OPS, which neutralizes park factors, is 116, a 37-point jump from last year that puts him 16% above league average. Tovar has done a much better job this year of elevating pitches.

No. 10 pick: Jordan Lawlar, Arizona Diamondbacks

Selected by: Bradford Doolittle

Why he's the shortstop to build around: Picking last in this exercise leaves me with a best-of-the-rest scenario. I would trade Lawlar and two other names above this slot on the list to get a shot at Witt, but such is life. Lawlar has All-Star potential, no doubt, but I don't see him as being necessarily more of a building block than other prospects/youngsters I could have taken, like Masyn Winn, Colson Montgomery, Marcelo Mayer and a handful of others. That's even before we get into outstanding-right-now veterans like Carlos Correa and Francisco Lindor, who I'm passing up because this is about a five-year window, and they are already at/near 30. I do think my indifference to a specific player in this slot underscores one thing: To stand out at this deep, talented position is hard, and that only underscores how much talent is bursting from the players listed.

One stat that proves it: Speed and power: Lawlar posted a .218 isolated power in the minors last year at age 20, but also stole 36 bases and scored 95 runs in just 105 games.

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